Winter Meeting Warmup: Last Year’s Contracts

To get you in the right frame of mind to think about the risks and rewards of offering vast sums of money to baseball’s best, here’s a review of the contracts given to the top-10 free agents of the past couple of classes and how they have (or have not) paid off:

Cliff Lee: Signed for 5 years and $120 million with the Philadelphia Phillies. In the first year of his deal, Lee had a very good season: 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA and 6.9 WAR – good enough to make it his second best year. According to Fangraphs, Lee was actually ‘worth’ $30.3 million, so thus far this deal has paid off for the Phils (who despite that playoff implosion, were a truly great team last year)

Carl Crawford: Signed for 7 years and $142 million with the Boston Red Sox. In the first year of his deal, Crawford was passable but unimpressive: a slash line of .255/.289/.405 represented the worst OBP of his career – and what’s more he only played in 130 games, saw his steal count drop from 47 to 18 and (according to advanced metrics) defense that dipped below average for only the second time in his career. Crawford may yet rebound, but according to Fangraphs was worth only $900,000 last year – making this deal a big loser for Boston. So why would they pay that much to a guy with Crawford’s skill set? Well, he was ‘worth’ $26.5 million in 2009 and $30.4 million in 2010.

Adrian Beltre: Signed for 5 years and $80 million with the Texas Rangers. In the first year of his deal, Beltre was as good as advertised: .296/.331/.561 with his usual stellar defense at the hot corner – good for 5.2 wins according to BR and 5.7 according to Fangraphs despite injuries that limited him to 124 games. Beltre was ‘worth’ $25.8 million, so the Rangers came out ahead. As much as I like Victor Martinez, I wouldn’t have been unhappy to have seen Dombrowski sign this guy instead of Inge and VMart.

Jayson Werth: Signed for 7 years and $126 million with the Washington Nationals, a deal widely considered to be more than Werth warranted. He wasn’t exactly bad in his first year in the Capitol: a .232/.330/.389 line driven by a BABIP 40 points below his career average, but mitigated by a good outfield glove. Werth’s mediocre 2.1 (or 2.5 depending on who you ask) WAR did add something to the Nats efforts, but made him ‘werth’ only $11.4 million – a bit less than he cost Washington. Given that the Nats signed a 31-year-old to a 7 year deal, this is not an auspicious start.

Adam Dunn: Signed for 4 years and $56 million with the Chicago White Sox. A lot of teams were uninterested in signing Dunn mainly because of his inability to field any position adequately (including first base) but the Sox and handful of others (including Detroit) had some interest in him as a full-time DH. In what has already become known as one of the biggest free agent busts of all time, Dunn displayed a unique inability to hit left-handers (and wasn’t so hot against righties either) – finishing with a .159/.292/.277 line and a whopping 2.7 wins below replacement level. According to Fangraphs, Dunn was worth a negative $13 million – so of course this one was an epic failure by White Sox management. So much so that analysts are wondering if Chicago might simply wind up eating the remaining $40+ million on his contract…

Victor Martinez: Signed for 4 years and $50 million with the Detroit Tigers. Martinez did what was expected of him: .330/.380/.470 with a lot of clutch hits behind Miguel Cabrera. Due to the position change to DH, he did see his WAR total drop a bit from previous seasons but he was still worth $13.2 million – just a hair over what the Tigers were paying him. His unusually high BABIP in 2011 is a bit of a concern, but Tigers fans have to hope that his power rebounds to compensate if he starts seeing more at-’em balls in the remaining 3 years of his deal. No big bonus here, but any time you’re able to get what you paid for in the free agent market ought to be considered a win for the signing team.

Rafael Soriano: Signed for 3 years and $35 million with the New York Yankees in a deal that mystified many and seemingly could be chalked up only to desperation after losing out on Cliff Lee. Soriano wasn’t exactly bad in 2011, but it was a bit of a down year from a guy considered to be the best reliever in the 2010-2011 class – a 4.02 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and a K/BB ratio of only 2 (due to a doubling of his walk rate from 2010). It’s difficult to properly evaluate what a reliever is worth using WAR – though Fangraphs will tell you he was worth $6.2 million to the Rays in 2010 and only $1.5 million last year – because leverage is everything in assessing their contributions. By becoming the number three reliever, rather than a closer, Soriano wasn’t placed in enough high-leverage situations to earn his keep – even if he had maintained the same level of effectiveness. Not a win for the Yanks, no way, no how.

Mariano Rivera: Re-signed for 2 years and $30 million with the New York Yankees. Rivera is old, and $15 million is an enormous salary for a reliever but he is a likely Hall-of-Fame reliever and he’s every bit as effective now as he has ever been: finishing 2011 with a 1.91 ERA, a WHIP of 0.897 and 44 saves. While it’s still difficult to assess the value of a reliever using WAR (as I mentioned above), while Soriano is clearly not worth is 8 figure salary, you could make the argument that Rivera is – or at least comes close due to his 3.5 wins added by WPA.

Paul Konerko: Re-signed for 3 years and $37.5 million with the Chicago White Sox. Konerko experienced only a slight decline from his monster 2010 season, and finished 2011 with a .300/.388/.517 line and either 3.6 or 3.1 WAR (the discrepancy is due to a massive hit for poor baserunning from Fangraphs). Despite his age, Konerko was worth what the Sox paid and more: $14.1 million.

Derek Jeter: Re-signed for 3 years and $51 million with the New York Yankees despite no other teams showing real interest. To be frank, Jeter is getting paid based on what he has contributed in the past and not what he can be expected to contribute in the future, but his 2011 wasn’t all that bad: a .297/.355/.388 line that marked an improvement in all three categories relative to 2010 and a career-low 10 GiDP (long an achilles heel in Jeter’s offensive game). Unfortunately, Jeter’s glove stayed bad (at least according to those advanced metrics) – with a -1.3 dWAR even lower than the -0.9 dWAR Jeter put up in his Gold Glove winning 2010 season. BR and Fangraphs diverge sharply on Jeter’s ultimate value, with Fangraphs pegging him at 2.3 and BR giving him only 0.7. Nonetheless, that 2.3 is only enough for Fangraphs to count him worth $10.9 million – still significantly less than he’s earning.

And through the jump we go on to the 2009-2010 class!

Matt Holliday: Signed for 7 years and $120 million with the St. Louis Cardinals. A .922 OPS in 2010 and a .912 OPS in 2011 have to be pretty much what the Cardinals were hoping to get from Holliday – given that he came very close to replicating his career numbers despite not getting the benefits of Coors’ thin air. His defense was pretty much average and he gave the Cards either 5.2 and 4.1 WAR or 6.7 and 5.0 WAR depending on who you believe – both of which would be good enough to justify the salary. According to Fangraphs he was worth $26.7 million in 2010 and $22.7 million in 2011 – putting him well on his way to earning that entire $120 million.

John Lackey: Signed for 5 years and $82.5 million with the Boston Red Sox as the consensus best starter available in a market with no true ace. Bet the Yanks are glad they missed out on this one: Lackey was somewhat of a disappointment in 2010 (given what he was being paid) with a 4.40 ERA and a WHIP of 1.42. Things went from bad to worse in 2011: though the Red Sox offense kept his W-L at .500 Lackey’s ERA ballooned to 6.41 and he led the league in earned runs allowed and hit batters. While BR considers BABIP allowed to be part of a pitchers production – and therefore does not attempt to correct for an inflated BABIP in WAR – Fangraphs does not and bases pitchers’ WAR more on FIP or xFIP. Thus, for Lackey (who has simply been getting hit hard as a Red Sock) their estimates of his value diverge sharply: according to BR Lackey added 1.8 WAR in 2010 and a negative 1.2 WAR in 2011 – according to Fangraphs he had 4.1 WAR in 2010 and 1.5 in 2011. Even based on Fangraphs’ evaluations, while Lackey approximately earned his pay in 2010 he certainly did not in 2011 with a value of only $6.8 million. Others are not quite so forgiving of a high BABIP, and if Lackey doesn’t show improvement in this respect the Sox may not even be willing to give him a chance to turn things around on the mound.

Jason Bay: Signed for 4 years and $66 million with the New York Mets. This has turned out quite a bit like the Werth deal has for the Nats – so far – though for fewer years. In his 6 full season before signing this deal, Bay put up an OPS north of .890 – with only one outlier of .746. Of course, given the Mets’ recent luck, Bay would have to match the outlier and not the other five. The Mets can’t be pleased with Bay’s .749 OPS in 2010 and .703 OPS in 2011, while playing in only 95 and 123. While not really terrible – according to Fangraphs, Bay was worth only $6 million in 2010 and $3.3 million in 2011, making this a pretty big Mets loss.

Chone Figgins: YES, this guy was the NUMBER FOUR free agent in the 2010 class according to Tim Dierkes of MLBTR. Signed with the Seattle Mariners for 4 years and $36 million. Figgins was good for 6.6 WAR in 2009, but has been an unmitigated disaster (the likes of Adam Dunn) since signing that deal: a disappointing .259/.340/.306 line in 2010 followed by a .188/.241/.243 in 2011. According to Fangraphs, Figgins was worth only $4.5 million in 2010 (half of what he got paid) and a negative $5.5 million in 2011. That’s right: over the first two years of his contract, Figgins hasn’t even been worth a roster spot.

Randy Wolf: Signed for 3 years and $29.75 million with the Milwaukee Brewers. Wolf hasn’t come close to his amazing 2009 with the WHIP of 1.10, but he isn’t being paid to do that anyway. Wolf has made over 30 starts, thrown over 200 innings and won 13 games in each of his two seasons with the Brew Crew – putting up ERAs of 4.17 and 3.69. Wolf is a guy who doesn’t have sparkling strikeout numbers, but has a seemingly genuine ability to limit BABIP. What that means is that Fangraphs hates him, in terms of WAR and player value (0.8 WAR and $3.3 million in 2010 and 1.4 WAR and $6.5 million in 2011) while BR is much more positive with 2.1 and 3.1 WAR respectively. If your personal preference comes closer to that of Baseball-Reference, you’d say that Wolf has been worth every penny the Brewers paid, if not a whole lot more.

Andy Pettitte: Re-signed for 1 year and $11.75 million of the New York Yankees. Pettitte only made 21 starts in 2010, but when he took the mound he was sharp: finishing 11-3 with a 3.28 ERA. According to Fangraphs, Pettitte was worth $9.4 million – coming very close to earning his salary despite missing time.

Jose Valverde: Signed for 3 years and $23 million (if you factor in that option) with the Detroit Tigers. Valverde has been stellar as a Tiger: 26 saves with an ERA of 3.00 in 2010 and a perfect 49 for 49 in saves with an ERA of 2.24 in 2011. As I have mentioned several times already, WAR is a poor guide to assessing a reliever’s value – but if we look at Valverde’s leverage-weighted WPA instead, we can see that the contribution he has made to the team does outweigh his hefty paycheck.

Marco Scutaro: Signed for 3 years and $17 million with the Boston Red Sox. Scutaro missed some time this past season, but overall has provided exactly what was expected of him: a .275/.333/.388 line in 2010 and a .299/.358/.423 line in 2011 – leading to WAR totals just north of average. According to Fangraphs Scutaro was worth $9.6 million in 2010 and $11.9 million in 2011, making this a seemingly rare success for the Red Sox (though I believe Scutaro also cost them a pick).

Adrian Beltre: Signed a 1 year make-good deal with Boston for $9 million. Beltre was worth more than triple that, which put him on his way to a big payday after the season.

Rich Harden: Signed a 1 year make-good deal with Texas for $6.5 million. Unlike Beltre, Harden did not ‘make good’ with 6.1 walks per 9 innings and a 5.53 ERA in 18 starts for the Rangers – earning Harden nothing more than another ‘make good’ deal with the A’s, this time for $1.5 million.

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Tags: Adam Dunn Adrian Beltre Carl Crawford Chone Figgins Cliff Lee Derek Jeter Jason Bay Jayson Werth John Lackey Jose Valverde Marco Scutaro Mariano Rivera Matt Holliday Paul Konerko Rafael Soriano Randy Wolf Victor Martinez